Armstrong Air & Space Museum Holds Touching Surprises

By Scott Spangler on May 25th, 2016 | Comments Off on Armstrong Air & Space Museum Holds Touching Surprises

Armstrong-11Interactive exhibits aside, the unifying prohibition at most museums is “Do Not Touch!” A look at the shiny noses on bronze busts of notable figures tactilely demonstrates the long-term wear that would damage more fragile artifacts of historical significance. So it was a surprise to see a band of titanium not covered by the Plexiglas cocoon that surrounded the Gemini VIII capsule on display at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

This exposure was not an oversight, said a docent. Visitors were encouraged to touch history, to make a tactile connection not only with history, but with a place few humans will ever venture on their own. As so many thousands have done before, I ran my fingers across the titanium aft of the capsule cockpit doors. Its texture was uniform throughout my arm’s reach, roughly half of the capsule’s diameter. Titanium clearly seems impervious to bronze’s shiny nose syndrome, and Gemini VIII’s pilots, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, were really little guys.

My tracing touch took place almost 50 years to the day this flying machine made the first docking of two spacecraft on March 16, 1966. It recalled memories of TV news reports and photos (was it Life?) of this capsule docked with the Agena Target Vehicle. Nowhere could I recall the flight’s other first, a critical system failure—a thruster malfunction that sent the docked capsule rolling—that immediately aborted the mission and put its success in question. Learning about its specifics, it reinforced my impression of Neil Armstrong as an unflappable aviator with big brass focus.

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Egyptair 804 Plus Aviation’s Dumb and Dumber

By Robert Mark on May 22nd, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Egyptair A-320 –

Egyptair 804 Plus Aviation’s Dumb and Dumber

It’s an old ATC trick … using the word “appears” that is.

Whenever a pilot would ask us tower guys to give their landing gear the once over because of some odd cockpit indication, the airplane would make a slow pass, then wait for an opinion. Using “appears” was a clever way of telling the pilot what we could actually see without extending a guarantee the gear wouldn’t collapse on touchdown because of something we couldn’t.

I first learned about the missing Egyptair A-320 just before bedtime Wednesday night. Out of habit, I checked the local weather in that part of the Mediterranean and noticed nothing unusual before I turned out the lights.

The first reporter called me about 12:15 am wondering if I knew anything. “Sure,” I said. “Doesn’t appear to have been any significant weather along the last few hundred miles of the route.” And so it went the rest of the night every half hour or so on the phone, until one of them could get me in front of a camera for a live update. We didn’t even know about the crazy turns early Thursday morning, of course, so my only options were what appeared to be a possible mechanical failure, explosive device or a highjacking. Not rocket-science of course, but just a couple of years of experience talking early in the game. I figure better for me to give them my two cents than someone who claims it was aliens or something equally goofy.

So I’m still trying hard to figure out what, as the investigation continues building around Egyptair 804, could possibly interest our presidential candidates in commenting on the accident. But no sooner had Thursday’s morning news cycle begun when The Donald tweeted …


Donald Trump on Egyptair 804 –

Not surprisingly, he made it sound as if he had an inside track to the details, which of course he didn’t.

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Wings are Next for MAAM’s Black Widow

By Scott Spangler on May 9th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

MAAM-22Pinned against the hangar wall by a floor-filling mass of airplanes from a B-25 to a Pietenpol, The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s P-61 Black Widow restoration project seems unchanged from my last visit in 2014. Wearing its cowled but propless Pratt & Whitney R-28000 engines, it stands patiently on its tricycle gear waiting for its wings.

Those wings, which extend from the port and starboard nacelles, are under construction in another hangar, said Russ Strine, MAAM president. “They are the last big structural item left to do.” While the project’s completion is within sight, there is no predetermine date for the Black Widow’s first flight because the project is funded by donations and much of the work is done by volunteers. But it will fly; rest assured of that.

Working my way through the maze of airplanes on the hangar floor for a closer look, it’s clear to see that the B-25 and P-61 are twin-engine airplanes of similar size. But two engines and a shared weight of 30,000 pounds are where the similarities end. On the floor under the Black Widow’s right 2,000-hp engine was its four-bladed prop. Answering my question about the left side, Strine said, “We now have 2 complete props for the P-61B.  The only other airplane to share this same blade and hub is the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver.”

MAAM-9That was a surprise that struck home because my father, a World War II naval aviator, flew the SB2c. It was powered by the Wright R-2600, which is only 200 cubic inches different from the P-61’s engines, so that seemed to make sense.

More surprising was learning that the right engine was a zero-time P-61 QEC. To facilitate a Quick Engine Change, all of the aircraft-specific accessories, fittings, and mounts are already connected to the engine. The odds of such a find for such a rare airplane are incalculable, “but people contact all the time with items,” said Strine.

The top turret of four .50 caliber machine guns is, however, another matter. “Two are known to exist,” said Strine, “and neither owner wants to sell.” Only four Black Widows exist today, and if MAAM can acquire a turret, the museum’s P-61 will not be the only flying example, but the only one with a turret.

Of the 706 examples of all Black Widow variants built, only four are know to exist today. The examples the National Museum of the United States Air Force and the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center are related by their service in the post-war Project Thunderstorm. Left at its base after the war, the fourth is at the Beijing Air and Space Museum at Beihang University in Beijing, China.

MAAM-2Ducking under the logo of the 550th Night Fighter Squadron affixed to the MAAM Widow’s nose and sticking my head into the forward cockpit through the door in the nosewheel well, is where most of the work now being done on the airplane is clear. All of the plumbing and wiring is now installed, said Strine, and “we’re just tying up and final detailing the wiring.”

Getting the P-61 Black Widow back in the air is not the only project underway at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. The hangar where it now resides “is certainly tight,” said Strine, “but we’re about to remedy that with construction of an additional hangar.” Seeing the fully assembled night fighter is more spacious accommodations is reason enough for another visit to Reading, Pennsylvania. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Parachute Museum Is Pioneer Gold Mine

By Scott Spangler on April 25th, 2016 | Comments Off on Parachute Museum Is Pioneer Gold Mine

Parachute-3Jumping from any elevation, even a knee-high footstool, has never been something I have eagerly anticipated, which makes my lifelong fascination with parachutes hard to explain.

It all started in the early 1960s, I think, with my godparents, who fed my existing airplane addiction with a visit to ParaGear (and it’s still in business!), a sky diving shop near their Chicago home. It sold mostly surplus military gear modified for civilian sky divers. The owner answered all of my elementary school questions and gave me a catalog. It was my bible for making GI Joe-sized canopy’s, harnesses, and containers with elastic opening bands, just like those in the catalog, which he tested from ever higher elevations, from trees to a box kite.

Over time my hands-on fascination calmed down to a persistent interest, which led me to the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, part of the National Aviation Heritage Area in Dayton, Ohio.  Filling the better part of the Trail’s visitor center, I didn’t expect to spend all afternoon there, but I didn’t expect it to introduce me to the pioneers who were behind all of the equipment that captured my attention more than half a century ago.

Parachute-5Given his many contributions to aerospace, I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of David Gold, in whose honor the Parachute Museum was established. As a 13 year old, Gold was inspired by an exhibition jumper at Queens, New York. He visited local parachute factories and became acquainted with parachute pioneers Floyd Smith and Colonel Edward Hoffman at the McCook Parachute Branch (two more people I need to learn  more about).

Gold became a parachute rigger, designer, developer, and fabricator of specialized parachutes for personnel (including patents for a parachute riser system and the “guidable” parachute) and missile recovery systems, including the Apollo spacecraft. Think, for a second, about that last one. Walking on the moon is one thing, but without Gold’s Apollo parachute work…

Among the parachute pioneers I met at the next exhibit, only one—General William “Billy” Mitchell—was familiar. He was behind the McCook Field Parachute Branch, which commenced operations in October 1918. One member of this team, Floyd Smith, a former circus acrobat, race car driver, and test pilot, made a radical proposal, pilots should wear the parachute, not be connected to one mounted in the airplane, which would allow the airman to open the chute once clear of the airframe. This was radical because in those early days, everyone believed that freefall was a sure cause of unconsciousness.

Parachute-6Harold Harris was the first to save his life with McCook’s freefall parachute when he bailed out of malfunctioning Loening PW-2A monoplane. He landed at 403 Valley Street in Dayton, and when his rescuers reached him, he said, “I’m not hurt, just excited.” I’ll say. Besides preserving his life, Harris became the inaugural member of the Caterpillar Club, named for the insect that spun the silk fiber used in early parachute canopy’s. Membership is earned by employing a freefall parachute when an aircraft ceases safe operation. By the 1950s the club had more than 80,000 members, including Charles Lindbergh, General Jimmy Doolittle, President George H.W. Bush, and two Ohio boys, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

For dessert, the Parachute Museum served two succulent morsels of aviation trivia. First, most aviation geeks know that Operation Paperclip was the U.S. operation that scooped up the German rocket scientists who were the foundation of the U.S. space program. Paperclip also brought German’s top parachute designers to the United States, and most of them,  went to work at Wright Field’s Parachute Branch Equipment Laboratory. And they tested their new designs in a vertical wind tunnel (who knew?), built in 1945 and still in use today. And a vertical wind tunnel might be the only way I’ll ever willingly experience freefall. But if I’m wearing a chute in a plane that breaks… – Scott Spangler, Editor

Made-to-Order GA & Economic Exclusivity

By Scott Spangler on April 18th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

Economically, Piper Aircraft’s recent announcement that that it has gone totally made-to-order, makes sense. Unsold aircraft, commonly called “white tails” (a term that first described unsold airliners, identified by vertical stabilizers unadorned by an airline logo or livery paint scheme), can sequester needed finite financial resources redeemable only when the aircraft is sold. Only manufacturing new aircraft to each customer’s order preserves scarce resources in a more liquid form, ready to irrigate some aspect of business in need of financial hydration.

But making anything to order says something more than efficiently using financial resources. It implies exclusivity, a degree of access or acquisition available only to those with the requisite supply of money, time, and dedicated determination. Consider, a synonym for made-to-order is custom made. Clothing is a common consumable that costs more when custom-made than purchased off the racks.

General aviation is no different in this regard than a suit of clothes, and the Brits employ a term that connotes perfectly the exclusivity of anything custom-made: bespoke. Born in the 16th century, it derived from the verb “bespeak,” whose definition is “to order or arrange in advance.”

Before the Industrial Revolution and the miracle of mass production, almost everything was bespoke. Affordable mass produced products created the mass market that turned the surviving made-to-order artisans who catered to those who could afford their prices unreduced by any economies of scale.

Changes in market desires can have the same effect, and this certainly seems to be the general cause of general aviation’s decline. Just as the average person turned away from the critter-powered wagon when self-propelled modes of transport became affordable, the average person has turned to other recreational and professional activities that require a substantially less significant investment of time, money, and effort than aviation.

Still, there are connoisseurs of animal-powered wagons, and if they don’t possess the necessary means to invest in the custom-made recreation or the restoration of the vehicle that is their passion, they will make the sacrifices needed to achieve their goal. It seems clear that this is where aviation is today.

For myriad reasons, both financial and emotional, aviation is not for everyone. The resulting reality is that rather than pining for what was, we aviation aficionados should accept and work within the new normal. For those who’ve been flying through this transition, bespoke GA is way more expensive, but such is the price of participation.

There are alternatives, but the ultimate made-to-order airplane, the amateur-built experimental aircraft, is another subset of the fraternity of aviation geeks. For those not ready to bust a knuckle now or in the days after, Piper’s decision to make every airplane to order will ensure general aviation’s future for as long as there are individuals with the dedicated interest and ability to pay the price of their passion. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Forget the Cost of Learning to Fly, Think Value

By Robert Mark on April 11th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

SkyArrow AloftForget the Cost of Learning to Fly, Think Value

You’ve obviously thought of learning to fly or you wouldn’t be here right now. Spend a little time reading Richard Bach’s classic Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I guarantee you’ll be putty in the hands of any flight instructor who offers you a demo flight. You may not even need an airplane.

OK, back to reality … where everyone remembers how damned expensive it is to learn to fly. Blah, blah, blah.


Cost Vs. Value

Forget what everyone else has told you about why no one learns to fly anymore and prepare your mind for a few fresh ideas.

When you stroll around a new-car showroom or troll the Internet for a set of wheels, is cost the only thing on your mind? I doubt it. If it were, how could Toyota, GM, Honda and the rest have sold all those electric cars? They’re way more expensive than my gas-driven Mini Cooper, the one I’ve been driving for 10 years now … with no payments for the last six. If you’re outside the 1%, you probably think about buying a car in terms of the number of monthly payments before that baby’s yours.

Consider school today. The cost of our daughter’s college is enough to melt the brains of people who don’t have kids. Luckily she’ll only be 22 when she graduates which means she’ll have many years ahead to add her two cents to the entertainment world she loves based on her education.

When we talk flying though, everyone zeroes in on the cost per hour and little else.

But what if we treated learning to fly like a college education or a new car and amortized the cost … spread it out over a few years. What happens next is simply magical. The price of learning to fly begins to look affordable as the raw dollar issue slips to the back of your focus much like minimizing a tab on a browser. You know it’s still there, but it’s just not staring you in the face every moment of the day.


AOPA’s Reimagined Cessna 152

Jim Knollenberg told me the other day that earning a private pilot certificate today, start to finish, probably runs between $10,000 to $12,000. He’s president of Pilot Finance Inc., an Illinois-based company that finances both the private pilot certificate and the instrument rating for the short of cash. Read the rest of this entry »

Udvar-Hazy: Surprises & Friends Restored

By Scott Spangler on March 28th, 2016 | 6 Comments »

634A9600After reading almost every word written about the National Air & Space Museum ‘s Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the last emotion I expected when walking through the door was overwhelming surprise. But taking in the second-floor panorama of the Boeing Aviation Hangar turned me into a deeply rooted tree. No matter which way I turned my eyes, up, down, to the left and to the right, I saw airplanes that were old friends, known only to me by photos of the well-thumbed pages of books on my shelves at home, and winged creatures that silently asked, do you know me?

To the left was the Enola Gay. The last time this B-29 and I met during a behind the scenes tour at the Garber restoration facility in the 1990s, she was in pieces. Looking at her reassembled form standing proud on an elevated stand, what came to mind were the signatures of her caretakers on the end ribs of the engineless wings while the B-29 was in storage at the former Douglas C-54 factory on the airport, Orchard Field, built during the war to support it. Today we know it as Chicago O’Hare.

634A9709To the right was a battered P-61 Black Widow. With shiny aluminum showing through its matt black finish, grizzled is the word that best describes it. On its twin tails were the worn yellow point remains of its last duty assignment with NACA, preceded by white block letters on the tail booms that spelled test. Before I read the placard telling of the airplane’s history, I knew from my visit to Dayton that this airplane was an Operation Thunderstorm squadron mate of the P-61 on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Sitting before the Black Widow was another product of Northrup Aviation, the predecessor of the B-2, N-1M flying wing.

Wandering throughout the vast hangar I renewed my acquaintance with a number of old friends, many of whom I’d first met at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Standing next to each other were the Concorde and Boeing 307 Stratoliner. Above us were Leo Loudenslager’s Laser 200, a Rutan VariEze, and Art Scholl’s Super Chipmunk. The surprise was finding Little Gee Bee, the homebuilt George Bogardus flew from Oregon to Washington, DC, to lobby for the rule that gave life to amateur-built experimental aircraft. Through the windows overlooking the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Center was the Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the storied B-26 that flew more than 200 combat missions, Flak Bait.

634A9699The Space Hangar introduced flying machines seen only on TV, from the space shuttle Discovery to the suits that protected their occupants from the harsh environment outside. What surprised me most, in looking at the suits, boots, and helmets is how physically small astronauts are. At the end of a time line of space craft was a Mercury capsule, Freedom 7 II, and the day’s last surprise. In all my reading about the space program, Mercury ended with Gordon Cooper’s long duration flight. But reading the placard before the fully equipped Freedom 7 II I learned that it was to be flown on a long duration mission by Alan Shepard, who made the program’s first flight, a short suborbital jaunt downrange.

If there was a disappointment about my visit is that I didn’t allocate enough time to see it all. But that might take a good week or more. But that in itself is more than a good enough reason for several return visits. –Scott Spangler, Editor

NPRM Offers New Part 23 Airplane Lexicon

By Scott Spangler on March 14th, 2016 | Comments Off on NPRM Offers New Part 23 Airplane Lexicon

If the recently released Part 23 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking survives the comment and review period and makes it to a final rule, old, new, and prospective pilots will have to learn a new airplane lexicon. But don’t hyperventilate, like the NPRM itself, it is simple and straightforward.

Based on aircraft weight and propulsion, the existing Part 23 divisions are Normal, Utility, Acrobatic, and Commuter. As proposed, say good-bye to the last three. All new Part 23 airplanes will be certificated as Normal, in one of four Airplane Certification Levels (ACL) determined by the maximum number of seats:

Level 1 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 0 to 1
Level 2 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 2 to 6
Level 3 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 7 to 9
Level 4 – for airplanes with a maximum seating configuration of 10 to 19 passengers.

This works in concert with the Airplane Performance Level (APL).  It replaces the existing propulsion-based divisions, which were established with piston-powered airplanes were traditionally slower than those with turboprops. To quote the NPRM, “These assumptions are no longer valid. Airplane certification based on performance levels would apply regulatory standards appropriate to airplane’s performance and complexity.” So the Normal Part 23 airplane will be either:

Low Speed – for airplanes with a design cruising speed (VC) or maximum operating limit speed (VMO) ≤ 250 KCAS (or MMO ≤ 0.6).
High Speed – for airplanes with a VC or VMO > 250 KCAS (or MMO > 0.6).

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MH370 Two Years Later: Has the Industry Changed?

By Robert Mark on March 7th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Malaysian Boeing 777

MH370 Two Years Later: Has the Industry Changed?

It’s anniversary time, but March 8 won’t be a happy day to reminisce.

Two years ago, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), a Boeing 777, disappeared from the night skies over the South China Sea on what should have been a routine flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. All 239 people aboard disappeared along with the airplane.

Only one confirmed piece of MH370 wreckage has been located, a section of the 777′ s flap that washed ashore near Reunion Island last year, some 4000 miles west of where an intensive search operation has been combing the ocean floor for nearly two years.

The theories about what happened to this airplane are as varied as the beer and wine probably consumed before most of those theories went public. Me, I have no idea what happened to the flight.

Lessons Learned?

What’s crucial for our industry however, is understanding what steps the airlines and regulators around the world have taken over the past two years, solutions to make international travelers sleep a bit easier after their next ticket purchase.

To the surprise of a couple of local Chicago WGN-TV anchors I spoke to last week, the simple answer to what’s changed since March 2014 is not much at all. Another airliner could go missing just like MH370 because although a few plans have been released, tracking the location of an airplane anywhere on the planet is no different today than when we lost MH370.

That doesn’t mean no one is trying to solve the problem of course.

A year after the Malaysian 777 disappeared, most member states of the United Nation’s aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO), agreed that air traffic control anywhere on the globe should be able to receive location updates from an airliner at least every 15 minutes and once a minute if the aircraft were in distress. They’ve also recommended new methods of recovering flight data recorders from downed aircraft. But recommendations shouldn’t be confused with solutions. Some of ICAO’s newest recommendations won’t take effect until 2021. Read the rest of this entry »

Bomber 21? Why Not Build a Better B-52?

By Scott Spangler on February 29th, 2016 | 7 Comments »

The U.S. Air Force opened the doors on its new, and as yet unnamed, long-range strike bomber, the B-21. The contract pasted in the cockpit window said each bomber would cost $500 million and the total program cost for a fleet of 100 B-21s would be $80 billion. Yeah, like that will happen.

Given the tradition of cost overruns and schedule delays, we can expect only two things with any certainty. First, the bomber will succeed the F-35 as the nation’s most expensive weapons program, and it will guaranteed a century of service for the B-52.

Like all the bombers that have come since B-52 entered service in 1955, the B-21 is supposed to replace the heavy-hauling daily driver of the bomber fleet. Brought to you by the same company that delivered the B-2 Spirit at $1.157 billion each, the B-21 will likely become another pampered plane, a winged Lamborghini, that only comes out of the garage when it’s a nice day.

If the Air Force is going to make a “better” B-2 with the B-21, why not get more for the taxpayer’s money by building a better B-52 by following the precedent set by the P-8 Poseidon, based on the Boeing 737, and the KC-46 Pegasus, based on the Boeing 767. Why call up the computer design files for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and save them as the foundation for the new B-52? Given their sticker prices, we could get two for the price of one, at least until the “military discount” increases the 787’s price.

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